One of the most pleasing things that can happen to a theatre fan is a show that you tried and failed to get tickets for at a small venue announces a transfer to a big ass venue. That moment when you finally get your tickets without having to go through endless online ticket queues, day seat lotteries, and/or the seven labours of Hercules is so sweet.
Such was the case for me with Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning play about about the consequences of the decline of industry and the traditional white working class in Reading, Pennsylvania, and indeed everywhere else in the industrialised west. Sweat had run, and extended, at The Donmar Warehouse earlier this year to universal raving and a complete sell out. I couldn’t have had higher expectations when I finally got to see it in its West End transfer, at the big ol’ Gielgud Theatre.
Now, first of all a small regret and sort of criticism. I don’t think the Gielgud is the right home for this show. It’s an intimate piece with a small cast and limited settings and for me, sat way up in the cheap seats, it sometimes felt a bit lost. Certainly it seemed that it was struggling to connect with the fidgety audience around me. Maybe I should’ve spent more and sat in the stalls, but I shouldn’t have needed to. I so wish I’d seen this piece in the Donmar, the sort of venue for which it is one million percent suited.
That said, there’s absolutely no doubting that Sweat, and this production in particular, is an absolute marvel. It’s been said so often that it’s basically cliche now, but Lynn Nottage explains the mess we’re currently in (Trump, Brexit, Gilets Jaunes, Five Star, that twat in Brazil, take your pick) more astutely than any politician, journalist or other apparent expert has ever done. Which is also to say that Sweat is horribly depressing, but you should watch it anyway because it’s important we all understand this shit and no one will explain it to you better than this play. Nottage’s writing is razor sharp: funny, difficult, truthful (the play is based on real life interviews with residents of Reading, Penn), insightful, devastating. Her characters are perfectly human and all sort of sympathetic, sort of awful in the way all real human beings are. Her beautifully constructed plot - I was so sure I knew exactly where it was going and the vicious twist in the last fifteen minutes was brutally brilliant - makes her points very clearly whilst still being entertaining and engrossing. It’s not difficult to see why this play won the Pulitzer and there’s no question that it absolutely deserved to.
Directed by The Bush’s new Artistic Director, Lynette Linton, the production delivers exactly the right package for a play of this quality. Linton’s vision is clear and deftly communicated (and I am so excited for her becoming an ever growing figure on the London theatre scene). Frankie Bradshow’s rusty, decaying, technically adaptable set is great portraying the general mood of the play, one of its key themes (deindustrialisation) and really effectively moving the action around all at the same time. Gino Ricardo Green’s video works super well with it, projecting clips of politicians being generally awful onto this rusting facade. Olivier Fenwick’s lighting is harsh and unforgiving with the pleasing occasional intrusion of some party time neon. George Dennis’ music and sound are subtle but effective. And whoever decided that Childish Gambino’s This Is America should be the end of show song also deserves mention.
The cast, 100% transferred from the Donmar, is also a dream come true. Much has already been said about Martha Plimpton and Clare Perkins in the central roles, all of it good and all of it completely accurate. They’re both just exceptional, giving performances of huge complexity, nuance and depth. I thought Perkins in particular was amazing. Kudos also belongs to some of the men in supporting roles (how nice is that phrase, by the way), especially Wil Johnson as Perkins’ struggling/deadbeat husband and Osy Ikhile as her troubled and troubling son. There’s also lovely stuff from my fave Sule Rimi, vastly underused but fantastic as an overworked social worker type. The whole cast kicks ass though, and it’s lovely to see a decent number of young actors with limited stage experience getting a chance to shine too.
I really can’t recommend Sweat highly enough. It’s not just a great play, and a great production, it’s an actually important one. If we’re ever to drag society out of the primordial soup in which it’s currently dwelling stories like this need to be told, seen and properly understood. And you’ll not find a better telling than this play. See it immediately.
Sweat is at the Gielgud Theatre in the West End until July 20th.
I sat in H14 in the Grand Circle for this one and paid £15, which is amazing value for a great view and reasonable leg room but, as mentioned, was a bit far away from the action for me for this production. Bafflingly, there are plenty of tickets and deals to be had throughout the rest of Sweat’s run - pay for as close to the stage as you can afford.